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The Roxy
The front entrance to The Roxy restaurant along Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
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Encinitas business owners rebuke city’s efforts to enforce regional health order

ENCINITAS — The creeping reality of permanent closure facing local businesses along Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas has pushed some owners to publicly rebuke the city’s enforcement of state and county COVID-19 restrictions, prompting an increasingly stern response from city officials.

In a rejoinder to resident complaints, the City of Encinitas announced last week that businesses found operating in violation of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s regional stay-at-home order prohibiting indoor/outdoor dining were in “jeopardy of losing their city-issued” street and sidewalk encroachment permits, in addition to facing “hefty county fines,” according to a recent city release.

Under the current mandate, San Diego County restaurants are limited to takeout-only services.

“The bottom line is we can’t have our local businesses using the city’s right-of-way to violate the county health order,” Mayor Catherine Blakespear told The Coast News. “This is in no way motivated by a desire to be punitive and it really is the concern for public health —this pandemic is deathly real.”

The city’s latest brushback was issued just days before officials in neighboring Carlsbad held a special meeting on Jan. 5 to discuss enhanced enforcement of businesses in “willful violation” of the same state and county health mandates. However, the motion, brought forward by Councilwoman Cori Schumacher, failed to receive a second and died. 

In Encinitas, Blakespear’s recent missive was directed toward restaurants improperly utilizing right-of-way lanes along the highway for outdoor seating. The city’s pilot Shared Streets program, established in July, temporarily allowed restaurants to serve alcohol and food at outdoor dining tables on city sidewalks, parking spaces and two lanes of Coast Highway 101.

However, since the pilot program was implemented, operational guidelines have fluctuated in severity as hospitals across the region continue to grapple with a surge of COVID-19 patients. 

According to Blakespear, after the city’s code enforcement department made contact with several restaurants improperly utilizing the city’s right-of-way, most businesses complied with the request. 

Other business owners have expressed their concerns on social media. 

“Our Mayor Blakespear has announced that outdoor dining permits will be suspended for those that don’t remove tables from the streets,” wrote Tomaso Maggiore, owner of Encinitas Ale House, on Instagram. “We have had ONE to go order tonight. This is not sustainable and small business in Encinitas will be destroyed. If you wish to have a voice regarding the continued enforcement of outdoor dining, we beg you, take one minute and drop an email to: [email protected] and [email protected] Or say goodbye to all the small restaurants that you love as the corporations move in.”

The Roxy owner Paula Vrakas, whose business received a cease-and-desist letter from the county on Wednesday, said the current health restrictions are unsustainable for businesses with fixed monthly costs. Specifically, Vrakas said this month, she must pay $76,221 to cover rent, health insurance, utilities, payroll and other bills, whether the restaurant is open or closed.

“As a veteran, I believe in our country,” Vrakas told The Coast News. “I also expect our local government to protect us, to support us, to help guide us through this. We are their constituents too. 

“There is no denying that this virus is out of control and hospitals are overwhelmed, but without scientific evidence, how can you shame and bully small businesses, such as The Roxy? Why is it appropriate to single out and punish the little guys? We are not criminals, we are not selfish. We are simply out of options.”

Blakespear said she cares about local businesses “tremendously” and the city has done everything it can to alleviate the overwhelming burdens facing local business owners struggling to keep their doors open amidst a pandemic that has not shown any signs of slowing down. 

“The pandemic is terrible,” Blakespear said. I don’t have a magic bullet for this. We are just trying to chart a path forward to help do our part to reduce the spread. We do know from data released that restaurants are outbreak sites.”

Maurizio Trattoria Italiana
Outdoor heat lamps and plants sit unused in front of Maurizio Trattoria Italiana located near The Roxy in Encinitas. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Michael Curran, attorney at Curran & Curran Law, is currently advising more than 325 restaurants, salons, gyms and other small businesses requesting legal assistance to remain open.

“In the beginning, I agreed with the stay in shutdown orders,” Curran said. “But 11 months later, we now have data where the spread is happening, roughly 70% of the spread is from in-home gatherings, big box stores, travel and retirement homes. There is no evidence that restaurants alone are causing these spreads.”

Curran said about 60% of restaurants, bars, salons and gyms have shutdown permanently across San Diego County due to COVID-19 health restrictions, which he believes are unconstitutional.

“A government doesn’t get to shut down a business without a narrow and specific reason why,” Curran said.

In December, Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil ruled the state of California and San Diego County have not provided evidence tying the spread of COVID-19 or lack of intensive care unit bed capacity to live adult entertainment or restaurants.

Wohlfeil’s order prohibited both state and county officials from enforcing California’s regional stay-at-home order, allowing thousands of eateries in the county to immediately reopen. However, just two days later, an appeals court stayed the injunction, forcing those same businesses to close down again.

The 4th District Court of Appeal scheduled oral arguments in the case for January 19.